On Monday, Beijing issued a decree that has riled many across the nation. Going forward, moms and dads whom the state deems sufficiently aged are protected under the “Elderly Rights Law.”
According to the legislation, parents have the legal right to request government mediation or even file a lawsuit against children who fail to regularly drop by for a visit or give them a phone call. China Daily writes that the core intent of the law is “to protect the lawful rights and interests of parents aged 60 and older, and to carry on the Chinese virtue of filial piety.”
Unsurprisingly, the law has strong voices speaking for and against. All told 17 million sounded off on Weibo about it.
“It is a great policy and I am very happy to see the government release such a policy to encourage children to fulfill their obligations to their parents,” Huang Kesheng, a 20-year-old student at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, told the paper.
Lamenting the corrosion of Confucian virtues among China’s youth, Xia Xueluan, professor of social studies at Peking University, said: “In the past, just a few people treated their parents badly, but now there’s a large group of Chinese who are un-filial. It’s necessary to legislate to protect the rights of the elderly and promote moral integrity.”
However, Bei Zhong, a late-20s white collar professional from Chongqing who works and lives in Shanghai, sees it differently. “I do not think there should be a law that requires people to visit their parents,” she told The Diplomat. “It gives the impression to other countries that Chinese people need a law to tell them they should visit their elders. It’s quite embarrassing.”
She added, “If the government wants to make a point about taking care of parents, they should just publicize it and let people understand it by themselves.”
According to a BBC report, Zhang Yan Feng of Beijing’s King & Capital Law Firm called the law more of an “educational message” than a rigid regulation. Nonetheless, there are potential consequences for those who don’t heed its message. While it may be hard to fathom how such a law would be enforced, the report explained that courts will have the power to fine or detain anyone who is in violation. “Court rulings can force the person to visit home certain times a month,” Zhang said.
Perhaps the controversial – some say farcical – law should come as no surprise. After all, China gave us Confucius – perhaps the most family-oriented philosopher in human history. Given the nation’s Confucian foundations, the rift between its elderly and the post-1980s “me generation” has been especially felt when compared with similar changes that have taken place in other countries.
This generational strain will intensify for the foreseeable future. Similar to Japan, China is graying at an alarming rate. According to government statistics, more than 178 million people in China are older than 60 – a number that will double by 2030. By 2040, China will mirror Japan’s current demographics, and by 2050 one in three members of its population will be 60 or older.
“Most Chinese do not really study Confucianism in school today,” Zhong said. “If you want to learn about these things you have to read up on it yourself. But many people today are too busy working to read books.”
Alongside the generational divide and deterioration of old-fashioned values, a major driving force behind China’s Confucian fallout is urbanization, which often means moving far from home. This is especially true for young professionals like Zhong who are leaving the far flung corners of the country in droves to congregate in economic hubs like Beijing or Shanghai. Simply put, this makes those filial visits both logistically difficult and often expensive.
“How often I visit my parents depends on my schedule, for one,” Zhong said. “Last year I spent two months with them. But so far this year, I haven’t even had the time to visit my parents yet. Flights are also very expensive.”
Should parents invoke the new law, however, this excuse may no longer hold water. As The Telegraph notes, it reads, “Family members who live apart from their parents should visit often or send their regards to their parents.”
This is easier said than done. Zhong said that she, along with her friends, often resort to squeezing trips to their hometowns into the brief national holiday of Chinese New Year (CNY). It’s worth noting that any travel at this time is no leisurely jaunt. During this brief window of time China sees the world’s largest human migration, with hundreds of millions of people crisscrossing the country and completely clogging its transportation networks.
Recognizing this predicament, some companies offer generous vacation packages for non-local staff. “My company gives non-local employees 20 days of paid leave,” Zhong said. “But most people also want to use some of that time to travel elsewhere. Besides, after you leave your hometown for many years, you kind of lose your feelings of attachment to it.”
While some will wage a war against these trends, it is highly unlikely that they will stop the forces of a juggernaut as large as China’s urbanization and its growing generation gap. Thankfully for Chinese youth, some parents understand.
“My mom and dad would never dream of demanding for me to visit,” Zhong said. “They just want me to be happy.”